Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Unscrewable Pooch Meets Roger Goodell

In a past life, I'd be leaving for the Super Bowl today. The iron routine of that event was that each team flew into the host city late Sunday, and of course, the press corps had to get there ahead of them.

I will confess to a heretical sportswriter thought. I enjoyed covering Super Bowls. The hype and nonsense amuse me. I liked spending an entire week in a community of thousands of people who were thinking of nothing but football (well, that and where their next free food and drink was coming from). If your home team is in the Super Bowl, covering the game is an enormous amount of work, but you have the consolation of knowing that a reasonably high percentage of your audience is following you work. If the home team isn't in the game, it's a breeze. There's no night work until the game itself, when adrenaline kicks in, even if you're covering a Super Rout (I covered three of the top four blowouts).

This year, the routine will be different. Nobody's showing up until Monday. The Pro Bowl is today, and by NFL decree, nothing can interfere with this megacolossal non-event. The league is making members of the Colts and Saint who were named to the Pro Bowl teams show up and watch! Of course, it hasn't been able to prevent Pro Bowlers from other teams who don't give a damn, like Tom Brady, from sending their regrets. Since the game's being held in Miami instead of Honolulu, there were more dropouts than usual, too.

When the plan to shift the Pro Bowl's date and location was first announced back before last season, opinion was unanimous. This was a stupid idea. Now that the change is actually upon us, however, opinion has shifted. This is about the stupidest idea in sports marketing history.

The truth is, it doesn't matter when or where the Pro Bowl is played. Honolulu in February or Paris in the spring, the game is always going to suck, and no one is going to care about it. Football is just not a game where the All-Star concept works. The sensible thing to do would be to name two Pro Bowl teams (players DO covet that honor), ferry them all out to some subtropic resort, and have an AFC-NFC golf tournament. I'd tune in to watch somebody like Vince Wolfolk try to play Pebble Beach, and I bet others would, too.

But the problem with today's Pro Bowl is more insidious than its sure-to-flop status. In the tiniest, most incremental way, the NFL has started messing with the routine and setup of the Super Bowl itself, the most successful event in U.S. sports history, the league's crown jewel and cash cow. That's not dangerous in itself, but once organizations start messing with success, they have a terrible tendency not to know when to stop. Commissioner Goodell has shown a marked tendency to micromanage. He appears to be just the kind of CEO who feels he must leave an imprint on a business -- whether or not it needs any.

A tweak here, and a tweak there, and pretty soon, the unscrewable pooch is no longer a virgin, the Super Bowl is no longer the ultimate mass marketing experience, and your league is no longer as rich as it used to be.

Think this can't happen? Check with the International Olympic Committee. They screwed the American television pooch in less than a decade.


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